The National Law Review last week posted an interesting article about a court case in Illinois that addresses when compensable work begins for the traveling employee. In the case Pryor v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Illinois Appellate Court reviewed the case where a workers injury occurred while moving a suitcase into his car before he ever left the house.

The injured worker, Lanyon Pryor, was employed by Cassen Transport as a truck driver responsible for delivering new automobiles to Chrysler dealerships throughout a multi-state region. On the particular morning in question, he had packed a suitcase for one of these overnight trips, and injured his lower back when putting it into his personal vehicle. The court ultimately concluded that “while a traveling employee has a lower threshold of reasonableness concerning his actions, under the facts of this case, where the claimant came to his employer’s premises prior to commencing his job as a truck driver, the employee was not a traveling employee until he reached his employer’s premises which triggered the start of his work day as a delivery driver. Thus, the employee’s injury while loading a suitcase into his personal vehicle prior to going to work to retrieve his work truck was not compensable, as it did not “arise out of” or “in the course of” his employment.”

In this particular case the court was able to rely on a particularly “cut and dry” point of origination regarding the claimants workplace duties. He had to pick up a truck, and therefore needed to check in to his dispatch center, an otherwise normal function of his job. However, left out in the gray, so to speak, are the road warriors who have no such defining start point to their travel day.

When does coverage begin for those of us in that category?

I travel quite a bit for business. More often than not, I pack my bag, I load it in the car, I drive to the airport and board a plane without ever first stopping at my office to “start the workday”. All of those actions are presumably taken as part of a needed trip “for the benefit of my employer”. If the plane crashes or I drive off the Howard Franklin Bridge on the way to Tampa International, I would presumably be covered under workers' compensation. But at what point does that coverage actually begin?

In Florida I believe it would start with that suitcase, and in fact the Illinois ruling may not be the norm in these situations. Interestingly, if you read the source story you will find that this particular claimant had already been seeing a chiropractor for back pain in the week prior to the accident, and had called in sick blaming sciatica pain from a 250 mile motorcycle ride. I would think the court could have easily relied on preexisting medical data to justify the denial of this particular claim. The fact they relied on course and scope might muddy the water for other travelers “down the road” (if you will pardon the pun).

Of course, I say that with very limited knowledge of Illinois law. An Arbitrator initially assigned the case found that the “claimant failed to prove he sustained an accident that “arose out of” and “in the course of” his employment”.  The Arbitrator reached the same determination ultimately agreed to by the court, that the claimant “would be considered a traveling employee from when he arrives at [the employer’s] terminal, loads his vehicle, delivers his vehicles to a destination, and returns to the terminal.”  They determined that “lifting an overnight bag is not sufficient to put [the claimant] “in the course of” his employment.” 

It appears the Arbitrator relied upon a prior Supreme Court decision where it was found that “for an injury to arise out of the employment, the risk must be peculiar to the work or a risk to which the employee is exposed to a greater degree than the general public by reason of his employment.” 

The Arbitrator also found that the “claimant’s condition was not causally related to the lifting incident”, giving some credence to the deniability based on prior medical records.

This is not the first such quandary we've seen when dealing with traveling employees. As far back as 1926, a US court awarded death benefits to a traveling salesman who died in a fire at a brothel. The court determined that pursuing “creature comforts” while traveling for work is within normal course and scope of the job. An Australian Court made headlines a couple years ago when it awarded benefits to a woman who injured herself having sex in her motel room. The justices in that case saw the entire scope of travel as being for the benefit of her employer, and awarded benefits on that basis. The Australian Supreme Court eventually reversed that decision.

The questions of travel and compensability have dogged us since the earliest days of workers' comp. We will likely not see it abate anytime in the foreseeable future. The courts will probably have to continue to weigh in, helping us all to know when to punch the time clock on travel and workers' comp coverage.

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